Friday, 12 July 2013

The First Draft of History

Blogs are the first rough draft of history these days but a trip of this length will need some processing before any conclusions can be drawn. At this stage all you can do is capture the impressions that stand out from the crowd.

The fantastic roads: the Croatian coast, the gorges of Eastern Tibet, the dirt hairpins to Everest, the wide valleys of western Tibet.

The terrible roads: Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat, Albania, Chinese city traffic.

The challenges: Tibetan sand, Szechuan mud, Chinese floods, altitude, erratic sea crossings and jobs worth customs officials

The sights: The ruins of, Khiva, Hagia Sofia, Mt Everest, morning fog on the Bosphorus, the night sky in the Pamirs, remote Tibetan monasteries, balloons over Cappadocia

The people: Lunch with M and family in Turkmenistan, a christening in Tbilisi, tea and doughnuts in a yurt in Sary Tash, Szechuan Opera in Chengdu, a truck driver offering a watermelon by the roadside, coffee with a Turkish Islamist and again with a Greek priest, a guitarist in Dubrovnik.

The food: deep fried scorpion, yak burger, hot pot, meat-on-a-stick, plov, salt baked fish, boil-in-the-bag breakfasts.

The company: Tintin, "The Prof", Papa Love, the irrepressible Peter M, Brad, Uncle Mel and all the team who worked together to get us all to the end.

Each of these elements can be described, photographed, talked about, exaggerated and remembered, but the nature of this sort of trip is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The totality of the experience, the emotion, the "feel" is difficult to describe to those who haven't been there. The author hopes that this blog has presented the pearls and some of the thread that joins them.

If you have been, thank you for reading this far.

Day 76 - Katie Lied

There aren't nine million bicycles in Beijing. Nine million cars perhaps but the humble bicycle has been left behind in the rush to modernisation.

Though better than other cities in many ways, Chinese driving and road design have not developed to meet the challenges of a modern city.

The "Yellow Box" junction is unheard of with the result that all cars simply enter the junction and block each other. The traffic lights are a law unto themselves which normally doesn't matter as many drivers (and all bicycles and scooters) simply ignore them. Our taxi back from the train station was sat at a red light for 40 minutes while the other three roads kept moving. Eventually we walked.

Our hotel, Raffles Beijing, was built in 1917 as the best European hotel in the capital. Still swanky after all these years with prices to match, but a wonderful haven of peace to reflect and prepare for the journey home. Less then 16 hours airborne (less seven time zones) to get back to where we started 11 weeks ago.

Tonight we are out for a final dinner (Peking Duck of course) and then Deefor leaves for the airport and a flight home via Brussels.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Day 75 - The End

A final 150km from Beijing to the docks at Tianjin. No dramas on the road but an end of term feel to the ride. A couple of bikes limped the last bit - Deefor's clutch is cooked - so it is good that this is the last day.

If tou have anything that has been made in China then there is a good chance it was shipped through Tianjin. It is vast and encapsulates today's China. The area of the port we went to, one of many, was over 10km long and built on reclaimed land. The warehouses stretched back from the waterfront as far as the eye could see. Some blocks were still vacant, others were stacked high with brand new containers waiting to carry goods to the West.

We left the bikes at a warehouse to be loaded into a container and shipped home. The next time we see them will be the end of August.

So it is goodbye to the GS for now. It has been a fantastic machine. 20,900kms through sand, mud, gravel and flood. Across oceans, up mountains, along autoroutes, dirt tracks, city streets and peat bogs. All it has needed is a change of oil and air filters, some new tyres and a but of fettling when it was crashed.

We travelled back to Beijing on the high speed train. 290km/h in air conditioned comfort from one modern station to another. Why didn't we do the whole trip like this?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

China and Motorcycles

It is strange riding a motorbike in China. There is simply no culture or understanding of large bikes. There are lots of small bikes - scooters and 125s - but nothing like a 1200GS. There are some odd consequences...

1. Every time you stop you are surrounded by curious onlookers. Where are you from? How old are you? How much does this motorbike cost?

2. Motorbikes are not allowed in the centre of big cities. They are seen as a traffic problem (which they are) so are banned. Where they are allowed, the roads have an extra lane for cycles which motorbikes share.

3. Motorbikes are not allowed on motorways. Presumably they don't want lots of slow bikes on a high speed road, but a GS can do 120km/h all day long.

4. Motorbikes can not fill up at the petrol pump. They have to park away from the pumps and are topped up using watering cans. This is meant to be for safety but seems arbitrary. This rule is enforced strongly in Tibet and not at all in Beijing.

Day 74 - To Beijing

150km along the expressway into Beijing. Like yesterday it was wet but the road is elevated so not flooded.

Five riders from BMW met us in the outskirts and guided us in to the dealership. We were met various family members (Hi Cindy, Isabella, Linda, Ting Ting, Leanne!) for an emotional end to the ride. Sometimes you don't realise how much pressure you are under 'til it's gone.

A great welcome from the team at BMW - beer and food and a few speeches - then in a bus to our hotel.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Day 73 - Noyes Flude

Today it rained. To be accurate it actually started yesterday evening, rained all night and continued all day. Not just a gentle shower, full tropical rain. And not your usual July weather in Central China. It rained so much that it was on the news. Bridges washed away, roads flooded, the lot.

After yesterday's suffocating heat many of saw this as light relief and set off without waterproofs, the better to get the cooling effect. By lunchtime we were wet and starting to feel chilly.

By lunchtime (a lovely KFC!) we had cracked the day and only had 150km to go. And that's when China threw one more challenge at us. Floods.

The first one was 400m wide and 50cm deep. Cars were stopped in the deep parts but the trucks were getting through, so in we went. Three bikes didn't make it and were pushed to dry land. Out came the plug spanners and WD40 and soon we were moving again.

The second flood was harder. The road surface was broken beneath the waves and finding a passable route was difficult. Some went left, some right. Nigel tried the edge and found the drainage ditch (see photo). When we dragged his bike out it wasn't flooded and started at the first attempt. Quick thinking by Nigel, to turn the engine off as it went in, had saved the day.

The third flood caught two of us out. The wake of the big lorries was so high it was higher than the exhaust pipe and flooded the engines. By now the fix - remove spark plugs, turn it over, spray with WD40, reassemble and fire up - was routine and we were soon back on the road.

Our quick afternoon ride had become a dramatic hurdle and we rolled in at 19:00 to a very welcome beer and a good hotel room to dry out our kit.

Tomorrow is our last 150km to Beijing. What more can we expect? Plagues of locusts or Godzilla.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Day 72 - Grand Theft Auto 7 - Ride China

"Congratulations Player 1, you have completed level 5 of GTA. You are now entering Level 6.

In the last level we threw everything at you; tuck tucks, scooters, lorries and the feared Land Cruisers. Then we tried to get you by changing the road surface; ditches, sand, mud and even cobbles. You overcame them all.

Today we give you Level 6. We start off by completely closing the road giving no diversion signs and deliberately hiding the point where you pick it up again. Then we route through a major city where we have dug up every road to build a three level viaduct interchange in the middle of downtown. We double the number of suicidal scooters and reduce the attention spam of all car drivers Finally we set a course of 400km and turn the heat up to 40C."

We all made it in the end but there were some tired looking people by 8:00PM when the last one arrived.

We are now one full day away from Beijing.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Day 71 - Shaanxi's Peony

400 km today from Xi'an (the capital of Shaanxi region) to Louyang (the peony capital of China).

The 310 shadows the motorway and the high speed train line (see photo) passing through a string of cities - Weinan and Sanmenxia, to name two. The remarkable thing is that most people will never of heard of Louyang or the other two but the have populations of 6m, 5m and 2m respectively and they are expanding before our eyes with vast new business districts being laid out and new apartments shooting up.

Currently China has 160 cities with populations over 1m. The UK has 5. The sheer scale of this country is gobsmacking.

The ride itself was OK. Very hot at over 35C but without too much traffic. We are one day nearer Beijing. Three days to go!

PS - I would like to dedicate the pun in the title to my Grandpa Boli who I hope would have appreciated it.

Star Gazing

Despite the smog this enterprising chap was making 20Yuan a pop to let you see Saturn through his amazing, rickshaw mounted telescope.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Day 70 - Xi'an Again

Yesterday's trips out in the city ended with a rather wonderful dinner of dumplings and soup. Everyone had had a great couple of lazy days and with a week to go, conversation turned to "best meal of the trip", "worst meal of the trip" etc. It is starting to feel like the beginning of the end.

Still plenty to do though! Tintin and Deefor recced the cycling options yesterday and today at crack of dawn, nine of us were down at the South Gate for a ride.

The walls of the inner city date back to the 1300's and tower 40m over the buildings. The top is 15m wide and makes a perfect cycle track right round the heart of town. Hiring a mountain bike for 100 minutes just gives you time to do one lap of the 14km wall (or two of you are Chris ...) but you have to crack on if you take too many photo stops. (Thanks for the picture Nigel).

Xi'an is the Chinese end of the Silk Road and it was a moment to reflect as we stopped at the west gate and looked at the road down which so many caravans must have gone.

We were all glad to have started early. By 10:00 the sun was beating down and with high humidity 36C felt really hot. A quick visit to the Backpackers Hostel for fresh orange juice and milkshakes soon got us back in shape.

After lunch, a trip to the Muslim Quarter. With so much trade to the west there has been a local Muslim population here for centuries and the mosque was busy for midday prayers. It is a wonderful mixture of Islamic and Taoist temple design. The buildings are arranged along a centre line like a Chinese temple and have curved eaves and painted wood decoration but without any images of animals. Minarets are disguised as small pagodas but still blast out the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Chinese characters are replaced by cartouches in Arabic script and the last "temple" is a prayer hall facing west toward Mecca.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Day 69 - Xi'an

There is so much to see in Xi'an it is hard to fit it all on in a couple of days. The city (previously called Chang'an) was the first capital of China and is full of imperial graves etc.

The most famous, the tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty who united China, is protected by a vast army of life sized warriors made of terracotta. Deefor had seen the Terracotta Army on a previous boost so instead visited the excellent Shaanxi Historical Museum
and the Big Goose Pagoda. The museum is home the Freddy, the magnificent Tang Dynasty laughing camel who is the mascot of this blog.

Labours of Van Man #8 - Fire Starter

Local Dress #11 - Mao Cap

Next stop party membership.

Day 68 - To Xi'an

From Foping to Xi'an is only a short hop (190km) so the plan is to be there by lunchtime.

The first 100km is through the same mountainous gorges as yesterday (see photo). The views and road were stunning. Sadly the rain returned with a vengeance so the exhilaration was tempered by a desire not to crash in the last week.

Once out of he mountains it was a straight run into Xi'an. Well, as straight as you can go in the chaos of Chinese traffic.

Xi'an is the ancient capital of China and is home to the famous Terracotta Army amongst other sites. We are here for two days so more on the historic sites later. For now Deefor is off to Macky D's for lunch!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Traffic Quiz

You come round a corner and find a Land Cruiser coming toward you on your side of the road. He flashes his lights. Is he:

A. Making sure you have seen him.

B. Indicating that you should get out of the way as he is bigger than you.

C. Letting you know that your headlight is on.

D. Saying hello

E. All of the above.

Day 67 - It ain't over ...

Just when the trip was in danger of turning into a long, drawn out ride to Beijing you get a great day's ride.

Like yesterday, we followed the "old" main road, the 108. Like yesterday, the road is pretty much empty as the traffic is all on the motorway which soars above us on concrete stilts over 30m high.

Unlike yesterday, the road has not been dug up and it didn't rain.

A fast ride along a wide river valley and through a well signposted city. Then up a narrow gorge with green wooded hills on both sides past small farms.

Now we are in central China the agriculture has changed. Gone is the Barley of Eastern Tibet. Now farms are a mix of rice paddies and maze. Instead of yaks and pigs by the road now there are water buffalo with huge horns. Luckily these are all tied up safely. "W is for Water Buffalo" would be very messy.

All in all a much better day though it was HOT. 35C and humid. You need to keep moving to stay cool.

Our destination, Foping, is a small town set by a river among steep hills. The peak opposite the hotel is crowned by a tall pagoda. All very picturesque though only Stephan found the energy to climb up to see the view.

Down in the town there is a dead body on the steps of the electricity company. Apparently there is a dispute between the family and the company about who should pay for the funeral and the family have put the body on the steps outside reception until it is resolved. It has been there three days so far. Four police cars are in attendance but no one seems to be getting too upset yet.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Day 66 - Making Tracks

We are into the last stage of the trip now: Three days ride to Xi'an and then three more to Beijing.

Motorbikes are not allowed on the new motorways so we stay on the "old" main roads. This is a mixed blessing. For: The trucks and most of the cars are on the motorway, so they are quiet. Against: Bits of them have been dug up with little in the way of diversion signs

The first town we got to the road just stopped and we were diverted through 10 km of mud and gravel. Not hard but messy and slow.

Then a lovely sweeping road of motorway standard with no traffic took us to the next town where, again, the road stopped. The footpaths were still there though so up we hopped and followed them to the town centre.

The next section through a picturesque gorge and pass was all tarmac and featured some nice temples. It was somewhat spoiled by rain, low cloud and wet roads.

Eventually after nine hours in the saddle we made it to Guangyuan, our stop for the night, and 350km nearer to the end.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Day 65 - Chengdu

Deefor ducked out of the tour to see the Pandas. Instead he, Toni and Iain went for a wander.

First the Metro. They are building five lines though only two are finished so far. Dead easy to use. Signs in English, destinations picked out in LEDs in the carriages, clean and cheap.

Then tea in the Ming Teahouse and a visit to Wide and Narrow Alleys for some high-end tourist shopping and lunch (including gelato).

A visit to the Taoist Temple in the afternoon ("The Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao") and then home.

After all that sightseeing and culture - Pizza for dinner. Great!

Day 64 - It's An Adventure!

A day off in Chengdu today so some of us decided to have a small independent adventure.

About an hour from the city is the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. Built in 240BC to solve a problem with flooding, the works divert 40% of a major river into a series of channels that irrigate over 5000 square kilometres.

The local governor Li Bang organised the work using 10,000 artisans. They built a levee using bamboo and rock and then cut a channel through the mountain. All this with hand tools and without any explosives.

Getting there and back involved the local train service. John, our local guide, bought the tickets for us and then we were on our own.

The Chinese rail system is very efficient. The tickets show a train number, carriage and seat. The platform and carriage numbers are shown on electronic boards so it is easy to find the right place. Once on board the destination, expected arrival time and train speed are all show in each carriage.

The trains themselves run on raised tracks between vast modern stations. Our journey was just 40 minutes during which time we hit 200km/h.

John was quite worried about us wandering off on our own but we made it there and back.

In the evening we went to an evening of Szechuan opera. This included acrobatics, juggling, dance, music. It finished with an extraordinary act called "Changing Faces" in which the actors change their masks so quickly you can't see how it is done.

All topped off with a Hot Pot. Here John is putting the duck's tongues and lettuce into the sauce to cook.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Puncture Repair Kit

Four punctures on the trip so far and Deefor has had two of them. Nails in the back tyre both times. Must stop riding through carpenter's shops.

Thanks for the photo Nigel.

Scenes From A Cutting (Up) Room Floor

A lorry overturned spilling its load of wood chip across the road ... three women on a scooter, a baby tucked under the arm of the middle one .... a rickshaw turning into the road without looking ... a car squeezing through on the right side at a red light, and then turning left across three lanes of traffic .... a tanker crashed in a ditch, the tank broken free from the body ... an overloaded lorry shedding sacks of grain ... a Land Cruiser with a wheel torn off.

All in a day's ride on Chinese roads!

Aussie Rules

With two Aussies on the trip it was inevitable we ended up in the Shamrock Bar in Chengdu to watch the Lions vs. Australia match. Great game which gave Andy and Brad bragging rights for a few days.

Which leaves it all down to the decider in Sidney. We will have to find a bar with a TV in Xi'an.

Day 63 - To Chengdu

A short hop today from Emie Shan to Chengdu. First though, a short diversion to Leshan to see the giant statue of the Buddha. At 72m tall it is the largest statue of the future Buddha in the world.

Then through the heavily populated area south of the city to the capital of Szechuan, Chengdu. As you pass through each town you notice how it specialises in one sort of trade. One has nothing but shops selling women's coats. Another is scaffolding poles. Chengdu itself is the home of women's shoe manufacture in China.

Lunch was a packet if crisps and a drink from the corner shop run by this lovely family.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Day 62 - Deefor Does Nothing (Encore)

A day off to recharge batteries, shake the dust of the mountains from the bikes, clothes and soul, and prepare for the last phase of the trip.

The Mount Emie area is beautiful and the more intrepid of us went for a tour that involved three hours walking. The rest chilled by the lake or in the bar.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Day 61 - Rain

It had to happen eventually. Today for the first time it was raining as we left the hotel. All togged up in rain suits we headed out into Western Szechuan.

The roads were greasy after the rain and our bikes are fitted with off-road tyres which have worn almost smooth. No one actually slid off the road but we all had a few squiggly moments.

By lunchtime we were out of the mountains and in the first city. The rate at which these are being built is amazing. Everywhere you look, new neighbourhoods and business districts are being laid out.

The traffic is appalling. Cars, lorries, motorbikes and pedestrians arrive from all directions. People overtake on blind corners with no thought about how to get back in to their own side beyond pushing the motorbike out of the way.

After 7 hours riding we had travelled just 180miles and were wrecked. The end point was Mount Emie, one of the most important sites in Chinese Buddhism. More importantly it is the site of a luxury 5 star hotel for two nights.

Dinner tonight was fresh from stall to table. Fish and chicken were being selected and killed order. We drew the line at the toads and rabbits.

Brad's Birthday

Happy 50th mate!

Local Dress #10 - Dirt

Deefor is modelling this season's must wear outfit in Western Szechuan Province. A simple two-piece in dust and mud is complemented by make up from the new Grunge range.

(Thanks for the picture Chris!)

Day 60 - Mud

Just when you thought you had seen it all, a new challenge jumps up to bite you.

Today was another "straightforward" day which is just as well as it was 450km from Batang to Kangding. A long day but we were looking forward to some more of those lovely tarmaced passes.

The road was good over the first pass (4700m) and down the other side. However it wasn't quite finished and we arrived just as they shut the last 500m so that they could lay the top coat of tarmac.

What to do? Sit and wait for two hours or take a detour through the water meadows to bypass the works? Snowy had to wait but the adventure bikers were off road faster than you can say Gelande Strasse.

Sadly 350kg of 1200GS and rider will not skim lightly across a bog and soon there were several bikes up to their axles in the mud. Once free they still had to climb back to the road, the last metre of which had been imported from the Somme. Carnage ensued with bikes being dug out, manhandled and ridden through the quagmire.

By the time we were past the obstruction one of the lorries had moved and the last two bikes were simply driven along the new road. Typical!

The fun wasn't over yet. The next two high passes were "under construction". As previously this means the old road hasn't been repaired in years and is now carrying all the construction traffic for the new one. The recent rain had turned parts of it into mud and puddles and the rest was churned to dust. Very hard, rough riding for 280km. By the time we arrived at the Love Song Hotel (!) in Kangding we had been riding for 11 hours.

Undetered Prof Sam and Deefor went out for a Szechuan Hot Pot dinner. This local take on fondue puts a huge pot of sesame oil, chilli, Szechuan pepper and ginger in the middle of the table. Diners put the meat of their choice in it to cook. It is quite simply the hottest thing "In The World".

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Day 59 - Leaving Tibet

The mighty Yangtse river (see photo) marks the border between Tibet and Szechuan. On the other side is the small border town of Batang, tonight's destination.

Before we could get there we had to climb a 5000m pass, then one of 4000m to get to the valley of the Mekong river. Then another 4300m pass and another 4200m to reach the Yangtse. That's a lot of climbing.

The day settled into a rhythm of switchbacks, cliff hugging roads, roaring rivers and police checkpoints. The scenery was breathtaking all day though the concentration needed to avoid rockfalls and washouts meant that you needed to remember to look up from time to time.

As we moved east we seemed to leave behind the arid, high, gazing country and move into the hot damp, barley and rice growing areas. It certainly got very hot. A taste of things to come.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Karma Kanics

While eating lunch, Deefor was surrounded by a bunch of kids on their way home from school.

One observant boy pointed out a large nail sticking out of Deefor's rear tyre. Not too dangerous but it might have made for an interesting "moment" if it had come out at the wrong time. Well done that lad! "Too tse chay" (Thank you).

The nail was pulled, the tyre plugged and Deefor was back on the road. Good as new.

One hour later, in the middle of nowhere, a Tibetan motorbike was parked by the road. The rider was looking for help, he had a flat tyre.

Deefor's over specified toolkit went into action. In no time the wheel was off, the puncture repaired and the tyre reinflated. After one false start and some back-up from Tintin and Snowy, we had him back on his way.

Karma - What goes around, comes around.

Labours of Van Man #7 - Entertainments Officer

Happy Birthday Tintin!

Day 58 - If....

"If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, / Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it"

After yesterday's route notes promised unblemished tarmac and ended in a scene from "The Bridge Over The River Kwai", today's note predicted a long stretch of unmade road to the delight of the KTM riders among us. What we got was, yet again, something completely different.

The first 100km followed our particular tributary of the Bhramaputra through a spectacular gorge (see photo) to a placid lake. A magnificent ride that made the heart sing.

Not all straightforward, recent rains had washed mud and rock across the road in places so care was needed. At one point the road had partly collapsed and a river had taken its place. No match for an adventure bike, but several Chinese cars were getting stuck on boulders and were blocking the way. With a bit of makeshift civil engineering and some manhandling everyone eventually got through.

At the end of the lake the road split. The right hand fork led to the Indian border and Myanmar (Burma). We took the left hand road which climbed into a narrow gully. At times this was no more than 20m wide with a raging torrent at the bottom. The road was cut into the sheer face protected by an avalanche cover which had seen recent use.

We emerged onto high pasture with yak and cows grazing on either side. Then the road turned north and started to climb up a side valley. This was where the off-road was meant to start but, in the two years since the last trip, it had had been paved. Instead of gnarly rock and sand, we were treated to 30km of tarmaced hairpins to rival any Alpine pass. Sensational.

As we descended and followed yet another swollen river, the rain started and continued until we reached our hotel. As Deefor types this blog it is still raining hard. So who knows what tomorrow will bring.

What a day. Certainly one where every unforgiving minute was filled with adventure.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Day 57 - Variety

"Straightforward day today. 290km, all tarmac. Have a lie in and a late start" said Kevin at the briefing.

Well he was right for the first hour or so. A lovely ride up into the mountains with spectacular views. The road cut into the near vertical cliff high above the valley floor. Then down to a small town that could have been in the Swiss Alps if it weren't for the prayer flags and yak.

Deefor had got away early and decided to stop for an extended cuppa by the river. A lovely sun trap, a rushing river and an iPod playing Kiri Te Kanawa. What could be nicer? By the time he was back on the road it was mid-afternoon and a "straightforward" 120km to run.

The Chinese road construction industry had other ideas though. They had decided to upgrade 30km of the road through a narrow gorge by building tunnels and new bridges. These, naturally, were not finished so the traffic ran along a twisting, muddy, one-way-at-a-time, goat track.

Chinese drivers do not understand concepts like letting the other chap come through first or waiting in line for your turn. What would have been tricky became the RAC rally as minibuses tried to overtake or dived for a gap and caused grid lock.

Eventually we reached the main river bridge which is being replaced. This venerable suspension bridge built from steel wire and wooden planks crosses a 200m gorge. This really is a one way street. The army allow one lorry on the bridge at a time. And it still creeks.

The road then follows the river through what the maps claim is the deepest gorge in the world. You have to crane your neck to see the sky and the river, a tributary of the Bhramaputra, churns and boils far below.

What a day. "It's not a holiday. It's an adventure". All the way to the end.

This Little Piggy ....

... was hanging around the tourist stop begging for scraps.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Day 56 - Rain, Cyclists and Pigs

After a heavy overnight thunderstorm we departed Lhasa in a light drizzle under overcast skies. Unlike previous days, when the early cloud had cleared to offer blazing sunshine, the cloud stayed with us all day delivering occasional showers.

The first 150km climbed to a 5000m pass through a valley which could have been in the Alps. Then down to a lunch stop town. Ordering food when the menu is in Chinese and you have no common language is entertaining. By pointing at the ingredients and miming "chicken" (cluck cluck flap flap) and chilli (yum yum ho ho) we managed to get a very good mushroom and noodle soup.

As we descended, the valley narrowed into a gorge with a turquoise river rushing through it. The hills rose steeply on either side covered in pines and partly obscured by fluffy white clouds like a classical Chinese watercolour.

All down the valley we passed Chinese cyclists toiling up the slope. Apparently cycling the Szechuan - Tibet Highway has become quite the thing to do in recent years.

A perennial problem has been animals on the road. Through Tibet it has been mainly Yak and dogs. Today, suddenly and without warning we entered the Piglet Zone. Everywhere you looked pigs were rooting in the rubbish, wallowing in the ditches and running across the road.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Day 55 - Deefor Does Nothing (Reprise)

After a couple of days of maintenance and aught seeing, Deefor recharged today.

Breakfast of bagels at the Summit Cafe and French Onion Soup at Dunya for lunch. A bit of souvenir shopping and a quiet beer while setting up all the routes to Beijing in the SatNav completed the day.

Only 14 more riding days to Beijing. The next six see us crossing eastern Tibet and descending to more normal altitudes ready for the run through central China.

Rock 'n' Roll

The local live music scene is going strong. This four piece were excellent last night. A couple of western standards but all the rest of the set was in Chinese.

Local Dress #9 - Tibetan Monk's hat

Just to fit in with the rest of the local populace.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Tibetan Butchers Shop

The early morning delivery of wholesale yak to the butchers shops in our street.

Day 54 - Lhasa

The capital of Tibet is also home to the most important civil and religious buildings. The Potala Palace was built in the seventh century as the winter home for the Dalai Lama.

An imposing building on an isolated hilltop said to resemble an elephant's back, it is now surrounded by the sprawling city.
Inside the brilliant colours are lit by yak butter lamps. The stupa tombs of previous Dalai Lamas are coated in up to 4000kg of gold and precious gems.

The overall effect is however, stifling and primitive. The parallels with the selling of indulgences and the promise of salvation through deprivation of the medieval church are overwhelming.

Quite a spectacle though.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Day 53 - Deefor Does Dunya

Today's rest day was spent getting the washing done, cleaning and checking the bikes. Suspensions were changed, people dispatched for Transit spares and the effects of the last week repaired.

A quick shop for new trousers (Jack Wolfskin copies) and a hat and the day was done.

This evening we returned to Dunya for a group meal since the planned Tibetan restaurant wanted £350 to make a reservation!

After an excellent meal of Nepalese chicken curry and Yak Steak the landlord had a lock-in and we spent a few happy hours watching his extensive collection of music videos from Graceland to U2 via Neil Young and Metallica.

Local Dress #8 - PLA Army Surplus Hat

So that Deefor fits right in in Lhasa.

Day 52 - To Lhasa

After yesterday's carnage, our only thought today was the three days break in Lhasa. First though we had to drive 480km over a 5200m pass.

Last night Snowy's front suspension was removed, driven over 70km of broken road to Dingri, welded into some sort of shape, driven back to where Snowy lay stricken and refitted. Tintin then drove the van very slowly back to the hotel ready for today's journey. What an epic.

Although long, today's drive was mainly on good roads so the bikes with broken suspension could be ridden even if doing pogo impressions over any large bumps.

The route took us over a high pass then down a narrow twisting gorge with the road hugging one side. On the other side the Chinese are building an extension of the high speed train network. No nonsense, the track carves round hillsides, punches through tunnels and strides across open ground on enormous pillar legs. How can they build something on this scale in two years when it will take the UK 20 years to build high speed lines to its second city?

Lunch in a Tibetan restaurant consisted of a whole lamb leg, roasted in spices and served with yoghurt and spicy potatoes.

Eventually the river widened into a broad valley splitting into multiple channels carrying the milky blue water on to form the great rivers of Asia.

Then we were in Lhassa. Mad traffic, mad rickshaws, mad pedestrians, holes in the middle of the road et al. To our hotel, an oasis of calm with space for all the bikes in the courtyard.

And then dinner at Dunya. This amiable ex-pat bar run by a Dutchman served excellent Yak steak and chips with a fresh tomato salad and cold beer. Luxury.

Monday, 17 June 2013


A short section of the road to Everest. As Peter said, it is only right that it should be hard to get there....

Day 51 - There And Back Again

The road to Mt Everest from Dingri (the nearest town) is 105km. Apart from the first ten. The road is an unrelenting series of hairpins carved out of the scree. On the plus side, there is no sand. Instead there are jagged rocks and corrugations.

Corrugated roads are an interesting phenomenon. Caused by heavy trucks, the vibration frequency of their suspension turns the road into a regular series of ridges, rather like a piece of over sized corrugated iron. They are terrible to ride on. The regular vibration shakes everything loose, bits of the bike as well as bits of you.

The rough conditions played havoc with suspensions. The rear shocks on three of the eleven bikes that made the trip failed with oil leaking out and clouds of smoke. Snowy also suffered with one of the front suspension cools breaking under the punishment.

It was a tough day. Breakages, one minor spill and a gruelling ride there with the certain knowledge that you had to ride back the same way. We are all exhausted.

So why did we go? To see Mount Everest of course. The weather was not kind and covered the summit for much of the dsy,. when it broke the iconic peak rose above our heads and made the whole journey worth while.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Day 50 - To The Foot of Everest

Access to Everest is restricted, so today's ride was to position us close to the entrance ready for an early start tomorrow.

We left Saga with few regrets. Apart from the dust, smell, roadworks and general poverty, the stray dogs kept us awake all night. It is genuinely hard to imagine how people can live in these conditions many of which do not need investment to fix. What they do need is education and leadership.

The route took us over two passes on unmade roads before we joined the "Friendship Highway" that links Lhassa in Tibet to Kathmandu in Nepal.

The communities we passed through were desperately poor but with evidence of new investment in roads, electricity, irrigation and telecoms.

Deefor stopped to make coffee by a ruined fort and was soon joined by this little family who soon took possession of any crisps and sweets that were available.

Tonight we stay in Dingri. All excess weight is being stripped off the bikes and the van ready for the rough roads to Base Camp tomorrow.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

MWA. (Motorbikes With Altitude).

One of the great unknowns about the trip was the effects of altitude. You can't prepare for it. It affects the fit and the unfit, old and young seemingly at random.

Normally people climbing at altitude have weeks to acclimatise. On a bike you go from 2000m to over 4000m in a day.

There is a drug, Diamox, which can aid acclimatisation but it has a few side effects like throbbing and tingling fingers.

So far, with the help of Diamox, all has gone well for Deefor. Any sort of exercise leaves you short of breath of course, but the more unpleasant effects of headaches, dizziness and poor sleep haven't kicked in.

It's not over yet though, in two days we are going to Everest Base Camp at over 5500m and that could prove harder.

Team Photo #6 - Nigel and Andy

Waldorf and Stadtler have completed "The Ride": five months down the length of North and South America, and several other long distance trips together.

They've done this stuff before and their experience shows.

Here pictured with their Guru.

Day 49 - Saga Holiday

Today's route used to take two days but, thanks to the Chinese road building programme, now it can be done in one hop missing out a particularly dirty home stay.

So, a long day (450km) on good roads. There was plenty of interest along the way; Tibetan wedding, Yaks swimming across a river, filming for a Chinese pop video to name a few.

Despite the god roads today was a day for bike carnage. Kevin got a puncture, Alan's rear suspension collapsed (who ate all the pies Al?) and Stevie Love's fuel pump expired. So a lot of fettling to do this evening.

The last 100km was through a tighter valley with peaks rearing either side and forbidding rain clouds overhead. Add heather and swap the yak for heeland coos and you could have been in Glen Coe. Except 4800m higher up.

Tonight we reached Saga. They are replacing the sewers and water system here so every road is dug up and it pings a bit. Water is available from 8:00 to 10:00 so there was a dash for the showers after dinner.

A long and eventful day that brings us one day closer to the literal high point. Mount Everest the day after tomorrow.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Chris's Birthday

Happy Birthday to the riding god that is Chris Porter.

Day 48 - To the Holy Mountain

After yesterday's nightmare today was a straightforward 230km on good roads. A welcome relief.

The scenery was fantastic. Wide valleys grazed by herd of yak and goats. High mountains either side with the shadows of clouds dappling the sides.

Toward the end of the day we passed Mount Kailash, a mountain holy to Buddhists and Hindus. The almost perfect pyramid shape is usually hidden by clouds but poked its head out for us. It is said that the four great rivers of Asia flow from its four sides.

The mountain is a point of pilgrimage as is the lake we are staying by tonight. Perched on a rocky outcrop between the two is a tiny Tibetan monastery. A more desolate but peaceful place you could not find.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Uncle Mel's Tea Room

Mel has a jet boil stove and regularly brews up by the side of the road. Here we enjoy tea, coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits to recover from the "Sands of Hell". Thanks Mel.

Day 47 - It's Not A Holiday...

GB's strap line says "It's not a holiday, it's an adventure". Ever since the start we have been teasing Kevin whenever a previously rough road was tarmaced or a remote home stay had wifi. "It's not an adventure, it's a holiday".

Today it became an adventure.

After 3 hours riding we had made less than 20 miles. The new road that is being built was blocked off and we had to parallel it on tracks being used by all the regular traffic and the construction vehicles.

The problem is that the land is basically sand with a thin crust on top and the trucks had turned it into dust. Imagine 32km of plain flour piled 15cm deep and scored with ruts and you will have an idea of the conditions. It was so bad that even some of our most experienced riders came off at some point.

Today's photo shows a stretch not yet churned by trucks and looking deceptively substantial. Do not be fooled. It wasn't.

In the end we had to get on the unfinished road or someone would have a serious crash or a burnt out clutch. That meant riding up a two meter, 45 degree bank and over a concrete kerb. It took Deefor two attempts and the help of some mates (thanks Brad, Patrick and Mel) and we were there!

The next obstacle was the tarmac laying machine which was parked blocking the road. Simple. You just ride along the kerb stones with a steep bank to your left, making sure you don't hit the machine with your pannier and then drop back onto the road. Compared to the sand it was easy.

It was all too much for poor Snowy (the support van). Despite Tintin's best efforts a front wheel drive Transit with a motor bike and spares in the back was never going to make it. A passing digger from the road crew was persuaded to help and Snowy was free at last.

Once through the roadworks the new road was superb and we flew along arriving at a nice clean hotel (en suite showers and toilets - luxury) in Ger at 5.

All agreed it was the toughest days riding they had ever done but we all made it in one piece.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Labours of Van Man #6

Hat provider.

You may well ask why Deefor isn't wearing one from his extensive collection. It's a long story.

Day 46 - Into Tibet. Take 2

Day 44 Errata. We didn't enter Tibet and they weren't the Himalayas. Although we did climb onto the Tibetan plateau we were still in Xinjiang. The mountains we could see were the Karakorums.

So today we really did enter Tibet. As we crossed one pass there was a boundary stone, lines of prayer flags and our first stupa.

The first 180km was on perfect blacktop. The corners melted into one another as we sped through breathtaking scenery of snow capped peaks and turquoise lakes. Crossing two 5200m passes where the air was too thin to light a gas stove.

For much of the ride we passed through desert. Sand dunes and barren rock with herds of Tibetan Antelope hunting for what ever vegetation there might be. Then the landscape changed and patches of short, bright green grass appeared with attendant herds of yak.

Then we hit road works and were directed off into the loose stuff. By now sand and gravel hold no terrors and the kilometres flew by under a sunny sky.

"Those who the gods wish to destroy, they first make mighty".

It started with some short showers which developed into driving rain. This has the benefit of laying the dust but it also disguises the sand traps which start to look solid. Soon we were fish tailing through deep sand and inevitably came to grief. Twice. Nothing broken but now everything is covered in wet sticky dust.

The best days riding so far with a gentle reminder at the end not to book a place on the Paris Dakar just yet.

Tonight we stay in a very upmarket home stay. Rooms for two people and hot water in bowls for washing. A chance to clean up for the first time in days. Dinner was a again very good with pork, chicken, green beens, courgette, potato and rice. Excellent.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Day 45 - A Bridge Too Far

The Chinese road building programme has reached Tibet big time. The road from Mazar was perfect blacktop and it looked like we would make tonight's destination by lunchtime. We had not reckoned with The Pass.

The construction crew are half way through building this part of the road, a succession of switchbacks up to 4980m. Half done means they have destroyed the old road by driving their diggers up it but have not started to stabilise the rocks for the new.

The result is like a sandy beach. Dry, dusty sand lies up to 20cm deep with tempting paths through where the last truck went. It is a question of weight off the back and go for it!

The theory is that keeping the back wheel turning gives you stability and, however much it moves sideways it will always follow the front one. Getting the weight off the front wheel allows you to point it where you want to go and Bob's your uncle. Nice in theory, terrifying in practice.

At this sort of altitude the effort required gas you breathing hard and lungs, mouth and nose are soon full of dust. By the time we were at the top and had run down to the first village, it was time for lunch.

After an excellent noodle and stir fry we set off with hope in our hearts only to find that at the next river crossing the new bridge wasn't finished and the temporary crossing had subsidence. The bikes made it. Snowy couldn't.

We all set too with shovels to improve the track but the Chinese foreman said No! We left it to them to create a new river, block the old one and fill in the missing section. Five hours after the bikes, Snowy crossed and we met up at tonight's stop.

Reed Willow Beach has no reeds, no willows and no beach. It is a windy, dusty, dirty scrapyard of a town with a communal bedroom, truck drivers playing cards and smoking. The dinner however is excellent. Definitely one for Trip Advisor.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Team Photo #5 - Stefan

Stefan is from Switzerland and looks right at home in the mountains.